I slip on the jacket first, mouldy polyester, fire engine red. It’s utterly hideous and I adore it with all of my heart, over which an embroidered bird emblem perches on a tattily stitched white ball. This is the top I wore to warm up for the final that remains the second greatest day of my life. It’s a touch tight around the middle now. Thank god I don’t have to put the tracksuit bottoms on. Behind me, trophies crowd my creaking shelves. Arrayed like the masterpieces in Gertrude Stein’s salon, my niece Sally reckons. They need a polish; I’ve had a rough cough lately and the dust isn’t helping.
My niece told me about the website. About Gertrude Stein too, though all that stuck was the name. Hairdresser? Sally’s always saying I should expand my horizons, but the thing is, I don’t know where to look. And this year, well, I haven’t been able to peer much further than the garden fence. You know enough about that without me going on.
I miss her. Sally, that is. It goes without saying I miss my wife, but it’s been years since the accident. My brother used to call. Now when the phone goes, I know I’m either going to be beaming because Sally’s had chance to ring between shifts or fuming at another spammer. She got me set up with Zoom and showed me how to make the font big on the cheap laptop. I’m all fingers and thumbs when it comes to technology. I used to pick things up so quickly. There were faster players and much bigger blokes. But the game’s won and lost in your head, not in your boots or your biceps. I had a talent for anticipation, an eye for space. I was razor-sharp in the box, a defender’s nightmare. Now I can’t get past a CAPTCHA code.
The desk is from IKEA, I picked it because it was called PÅHL. I like to sit down with my old PÅHL, ask him how he’s doing, share a cuppa. I know what they say about talking to yourself. My small black notebook is there, Sally’s Christmas gift, and my special pen. My mum gave it to me on her deathbed, said it was the one I’d signed my first professional contract with, and she’d kept it ever since. June and I used it to sign our certificate when we got married. I’ve replaced the ink a few times, and the tip once, but it’s the same pen.
Now I use it to write down what I am going to say. When Sally signed me up, I couldn’t see who would want to hear from an old forgotten nobody like me, but soon enough the odd request started coming in. I like to be prepared, put in a proper effort. Jotting down the details in my little black book helps me settle. Bullet points: names, dates, matches, memories. I get birthday requests, mostly, wishing happy returns to old fellas who remember me scoring when their hair wasn’t grey and I still had mine. I set my fee at £25 but Sally made me increase it to £40. Don’t undersell yourself, she told me. Bless her socks. She makes less stacking shelves than I do recording myself reminiscing about kicking a ball about.
It comes in handy, though. £32 a pop once the website takes its cut. Keeps me in Tetley Tea and Tetley’s Ale. I’d always thought it strange the same company made both, but Sally told me they were unrelated. Google is your friend, she said. I’d love a few pints down the local. They all know me down there, but I keep to myself mainly. Try not to overdo it, you know. Make sure I can get home under my own steam. It’s been a while though; I wonder how many of the lads at the bar have caught it. I’m not sure if I could Google that.
I don’t begrudge the modern players the big money they get now. You see them on the telly: shiny watches, flash cars, flogging moisturiser. Good luck to them. It doesn’t last. I retired right before the TV deals came in and the wages got silly. In 1991, my last season, I earned more than I thought I could spend in my lifetime. It was all gone by the time the new century came along. The medical bills, specialists, experimental treatments, throwing savings at a miracle I refused to believe wasn’t coming. June knew. She always knew.
Anyway, you can’t buy the feeling. It cannot be replicated. Pointing where you want to ball to be played, making two quick movements – one to fool your opponent, one all for yourself – and darting into space. Green grass, white lines. Pivoting your body as the ball drops over your shoulder, manoeuvring your feet into precise positions. Instinct taking over as the goalie advances and glory is at your mercy. Legs pumping like pistons, crowd roaring, ice in your veins and serenity in your mind. Placing it just so. The net rippling. Grace. Warm bodies of brothers in arms clattering into you, the joyful embrace of one fucking nil.
As long as I keep the laptop in the right place, nobody can see the mess the rest of the room is in. I haven’t felt like cleaning recently. It’s hard to summon the motivation when it’s just for me. I’ve thought about a dog, but it would just be another thing to deal with. Maybe I’m better on my own. I keep my comfy trousers and slippers on under the table.
Once the jacket is zipped up to my chin, it’s showtime. Camera on, make sure the audio is working, get my ugly mug in shot, hit record. Big smile, but not so large that it looks like a grimace. Get their name right, drop it in a few times so they feel like it’s personal. Keep an eye on the timer, don’t start waffling on, but give them their money’s worth. Let loose the gift of the gab, my missus would say. She loved watching me do interviews way back when, talking tactics, sharing secrets. A big bloody kid, she’d call me, chasing a pigskin. Some people aren’t built to be grown-ups.
It’s amazing what you share when the silence has been rattling around your skull for a while. Sally hasn’t called in a few days. She’s caught it – must be from work. Says it’s not too bad. I can’t go near her for a while, of course. I’d kill for a hug. What a strange phrase, ‘self-isolating’. All alone. The camera is on and I’m recording my message for a Mr Gordon. Massive fan of mine, my notes tell me, used to watch us from the kop. He’s a big shot entrepreneur now, retiring after an illustrious career. I don’t know what line of business he’s in but I imagine he’s the gin man. I’ll raise a toast to him at the end, tell him he’s just the tonic.
Before I realise what’s happening, I’m pouring my heart out. The days, the weeks, the months. Has it been a year? It’s the cup final again and I’m through on goal. I’m telling Mr Gordon why he’ll never understand it, but I’m trying to make him see. I’m a child with my old man watching my first match, two pairs of gloves on in the snow. June always bought an extra pair in case I forgot mine. She was a saint, I’m explaining to Mr Gordon, too good for the likes of me. I’m apologising in case the sound quality is bad, Sally was going to get a new microphone. Mum didn’t like football but she never missed a match. I don’t recall a man seeing me cry before. Centre-forward. My son would have played centre-forward.
They can leave a tip, the people who pay me to record them messages. An extra fiver to say thank you for a bright spot in these dark days. One kind woman added £20 a few weeks ago. I click the button for Mr Gordon’s feedback, fearing the worst, and see £20,000. There must be a mistake. I call Sally and she tells me to phone the website. I do, they say there’s no error. The drinks are on me.
Greg Rose is a writer working across fiction, non-fiction, and New York Times Best Selling ghostwriting. He directs the Virgin brand and Richard Branson’s global communications, social and content strategy. A former sport journalist, news reporter, music writer and professional footballer, he grew up in England and lives in Brooklyn.